Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
We've all seen documentaries about famous film directors like Alfred Hitchcock, men with tens of classics to their credit and careers that attracted newsprint, comment and controversy all of their lives. This documentary covers the life of a man who left an imprint on film culture but few clues in the official record. Before the 1970s re-evaluation of genre and marginal cinema, film reviewers and critics had little choice but to regard Edgar G. Ulmer as a footnote or a phantom figure. Wits remarked that if Edgar G. Ulmer did not actually exist, we would have to invent him. Andrew Sarris used his one paragraph on Ulmer to make the timeless joke that the director's The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll.
Edgar Ulmer is fascinating because his career is unlike any other. He made one full-fledged Universal horror film and was locked out of Hollywood. Instead of folding his tent, Ulmer bounced all over the map between Europe and America looking for the means to work and directing whatever became available: Documentaries, exploitation pictures, and finally some 'marginal ethnic' films that now play like a newly discovered branch of film history. The Yiddish part-musicals made in New York and New Jersey are little folk marvels, while the grindingly impoverished Moon Over Harlem preserves a slice of black Americana recorded nowhere else on film. Ulmer made Science Fiction movies, European swashbucklers, sword 'n sandal movies and odd concoctions not quite definable by genre, like The Naked Dawn and The Cavern.
Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen is an investigation into the known facts and unstated legends surrounding a director who remained mostly unheralded until after his death. He is heard in Peter Bogdanovich's audio interview from the late 60s, which may be the only time that the director gave a real interview. His daughter and research archivist Arriané Ulmer Cipes remembers Ulmer lamenting that his body of work would soon cease to exist. Most of it was made by evanescent little companies that perished long ago, consigning original negatives to trash heaps. Miserable 16mm copies are all that remain of the majority of Ulmer's films, and some of those are scarce as well.
The producers have rounded up most every actor still alive who remembers Ulmer, and it's a very short list. Since the films were made so quickly, many of them spent only a week with the director and had precious little time to get to know him. They therefore can offer no extended examinations of Ulmer's character.
Director Michael Palm sidesteps these problems with creative technique. A few critics are shown in generic offices and screening rooms but we meet others as they stroll through graveyards. Taking an idea from the fact that Ulmer's PRC pictures employed a great deal of rear-projection, Palm sets a convertible on a stage with several blue-screens and proceeds to film a number of actor interviews imitating the look of Ulmer's mini-masterpiece Detour. Jimmy Lydon (Strange Illusion) wanders around in a daze talking about the weirdness of it all, but the still-fascinating Ann Savage explains how Ulmer put cold cream into her hair to make it look filthy enough for her role in Detour.
Blending in with this are director interviews filmed in real moving cars on the streets of Berlin and Hollywood. When these angles are cut against the blue-screen shots the result is a playful 'uprooted' feeling of artifice colliding with reality. The directors motoring through traffic talk about the instability of working life, being hot for a while and then wondering what happened to the phone calls.
John Landis alludes to 'Hollywood police' that spread the bad news about 'loser' directors just as a real police siren is heard in the background. Joe Dante notes the blank expanse of an L.A. bus outside his car window, as the docu goes into Bogdanovich's interview assertion that Ulmer designed his cheapest movies so that many needed close-ups could be filmed all at once on the last day, in front of a generic blank wall. In Germany Wim Wenders marvels at how the history of a man associated with so many classics as an art director could not be acknowledged, while Peter Bogdanovich answers the suspicion that Ulmer made up some of his résumé with the offhand remark that he doesn't cross-examine directors in his interviews.
The docu tries to get a bit of 'haunted Hollywood' spirit into the proceedings by filming Gregory Mank, Tom Weaver and Arriané Ulmer Cipes strolling through graveyards. In the Hollywood graveyard behind Paramount studios, we note the many famous names on the tombstones. Cipes also takes us to the Gower Gulch strip mall that used to be the home of some of the Poverty Row independent companies. As one of the creative forces behind the docu, Ms. Cipes doesn't shy away from acknowledging that some questionable legends have arisen about her father. She has documents to prove that Detour wasn't filmed in five days, and just by allowing the discussion of Ulmer's early credits, she's willing to allow that his career, like uncounted others, was perhaps aided by wishful thinking. The two stars of Ulmer's last film The Cavern sit in a car before matted backgrounds and debate this issue. Peter Marshall (later the host of The Hollywood Squares defends Ulmer while John Saxon casts doubt. Saxon is such a limited talent that even his objections seem like bad acting!
In contrast to that, William Schallert doesn't remember much about his fast work on The Man from Planet X. As it was 52 years before, that's most understandable. The docu shows him almost obliterated by a fog machine, to describe how Ulmer used fog to hide a lack of sets. Schallert shows his eternal good attitude by singing a song, and wrestling with the Alien from Planet X again!
Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen doesn't go into depth about Ulmer's movies, which is a good thing -- there are no full plot descriptions. Instead we get newer generations of filmmakers talking about how they were inspired by the pictures -- knocked out by the sick ideas in The Black Cat and impressed by Ulmer's ineffable ability to somehow create something out of nothing. His brief home at PRC enabled him to do some of his best work, even to the point that Hedy Lamarr, a noted non-acting actress, attracted Oscar attention for The Strange Woman. Alas, the PRC men reportedly cheated the director out of his proper participation in the profits, and that association ended. Ulmer spent the fifties moving between Europe and Los Angeles working hard to get projects going. The director left a wide body of work, much of which had to be recovered and restored. Some of his films are still missing, and many are not available in quality prints.
Kino's Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen looks very good; the marginal quality of some of the clips is entirely due to the availability of good transfers. A shorter version of the docu was shown on TCM a couple of seasons back but this DVD is at the full length shown at various film festivals.
Thrown in as an extra is a 1943 PRC Ulmer film called The Isle of Forgotten Sins. John Carradine takes an entirely atypical role as a two-fisted sailor after a salvage treasure, with Sidney Toler as the villain and Gale Sondergard his lady fair. The tropical isle atmosphere is created with barely adequate miniatures; puppets are used for underwater scenes. Whenever Carradine gets into a fistfight he's suddenly replaced by a stunt double that doesn't resemble him in the least. This PRC film is typical of what remains of much of Ulmer's 1940s career -- a splicey 16mm TV print with poor audio.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen rates:
Supplements: Feature The Isle of Forgotten Sins
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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